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Story-telling ROI? Ask the finance director

September 29, 2014
by Terry Axelrod
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I spent some time in Kansas last week. Thanks to the leadership of the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and in particular to Tracy Kihm, their finance director, who has witnessed the bottom-line impact of telling your story well and engaging the community, we had a great panel session at the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas conference.

Our room was set for 70 and ended up full to standing-room-only capacity. Considering the session on "Medical Marijuana: What a Clinician Needs to Know" was one of eight to ten other attractive concurrent breakouts, our session—"Creating Sustainable Funding for CMHCs"—was pretty darn popular.

Board members, executive directors, finance directors, and clinical directors all came seeking the Holy Grail on how to engage individual donors in the work of their behavioral health and substance abuse organizations. Kansas is a big state and we had people in our session who had driven seven or more hours to attend this conference.

What they heard from the expert panel of executive director, development director, finance director, and board member from the Bert Nash Center was that it's all about the stories. Dave Johnson, executive director, shared the personal talk he gives at the start of their twice-monthly Point of Entry virtual tours. Cindy Hart, development director, shared how they maintain client confidentiality by having Mental Health First Aid volunteers share letters and stories about lives changed. Judy Wright, seasoned fund development professional and board member, shared how these stories educate and inspire people about the mission. And Traci Kihm, finance director, graciously and smugly touted the bottom line impact.

The big questions we got asked: How can we tell our story if we are in a small community, have no development director, and must maintain strictest confidentiality? Like so many others, the Bert Nash group had overcome those challenges with personal stories told by staff members, reading letters, or hearing live testimonials from grateful family members.

Questions about the stigma of mental health and substance abuse no longer dominated. Rather, after hearing examples of some of the move-you-to-tears, authentic stories that are told at their virtual tours held in their conference room, many in the audience buttonholed the panelists for more specific examples of how to tell their stories. Rather than focusing on heavy wealth screening of donors before deciding who to invite to these tours, Dave Johnson, executive director, told the group, "We invite everyone."

For me, the biggest takeaway was the reluctance to hire a development director or community relations person until the cost can be justified to the board. This chicken-and-egg mentality was soundly rebuffed by the panelists, led by the finance director, who cited the ROI they never would have achieved without investing in a top-notch development director. Moreover, they now have enough major donors to warrant hiring a second development staff member to continue to manage the tour process for new guests, freeing up the senior development person to cultivate multi-year donors to become major donors.



Terry Axelrod

CEO, Benevon

Terry Axelrod


Terry Axelrod is founder and CEO of Benevon. She has more than thirty years of experience in the...

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